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A Chicago Department of Water Management vehicle outside the Jardine Water Purification Plant. Starting in 2020, the city will reduce rates and stop late payment penalties for some low-income residents.

Manuel Martinez

Chicago To Offer Relief For Residents Struggling With Water Bills

During her budget address Wednesday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a new “utility billing relief program” to help Chicagoans who can’t afford to pay their water bills.

According to budget documents released Wednesday by the Lightfoot administration, the program will reduce water rates for low-income households — those with incomes no higher than 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Sewer rates and utility taxes will also be reduced.

The program, scheduled to start during the first half of 2020, will also stop late payment penalties and debt collection. And for households that successfully manage to pay at the reduced rate for one year, their debt will be forgiven.

An estimated 20,000 households will be eligible for this “targeted relief,” according to budget documents.

“For them, this program will cut water utility taxes, end the threat of water shutoffs, stop any referral to collection agencies,” Lightfoot said during her budget address. “And after one year of participation, waive all past due water bill debts.”

Additionally, the Lightfoot administration is changing the water billing cycles for all Chicagoans from every six months to every month.

When Lightfoot was inaugurated in May, she instructed the water commissioner to stop shutting off water for homeowners who can’t afford to pay.

Lightfoot’s moratorium on shutoffs was prompted, in part, by a WBEZ and American Public Media investigation that found the cost of water had tripled in the city over the past decade. And those rate hikes hit poor Chicagoans hard.

Nearly 40 percent of the 150,000 water-shutoff notices sent between 2007 and 2018 were concentrated in just five of Chicago’s poorest ZIP codes. Some poor Chicago families have resorted to illegally reconnecting their water after a city shut-off. During that time, the city’s water department also charged almost $7 million in fines and fees — mostly in poor, black and Latino neighborhoods.

Water rights activists said they were “encouraged” by Lightfoot’s new utility program, but they said they will continue advocating for affordable water.

“As we await details on her proposal, we encourage her to adopt a percentage of income affordability program offered by the Water-for-All Ordinance,” said Jenya Polozova, an organizer with Food & Water Action.

That ordinance, introduced by Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, in 2017, would ensure that water bills are permanently affordable for nearly 200,000 low-income households, Polozova said.

“The Water-for-All ordinance also includes policies that will ensure democratic control over our water system and equitable investment in water infrastructure across all our neighborhoods,” Polozova added. “This is the kind of policy that the mayor and city council need to implement to ensure safe, affordable water for all Chicago families.”

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